It wasn’t a simple task converting the storefront and subterranean levels at 142 Franklin Street in Tribeca—a pre-war, seven-story, brick-and-mortar loft building—into a functional, beautiful art gallery for the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA). But Overhead Architecture, a New York office that got its start in 2018 as an artist-led construction company, managed to do so seamlessly.
On a warm fall afternoon last month a crowd amassed at ISLAA to commemorate the space and observe its inaugural exhibition, Revisiting The Potosí Principle Archive: Histories of Art and Extraction and The Precious Life of a Liquid Heart, curated by Olivia Casa and Pujan Karambeigi.
Founded in 2011, ISLAA supports the study and visibility of Latin American art by platforming Latin American artists and cultural movements from the 20th and 21st century. Part of its mission is creating opportunities for Latin American researchers, curators, and artists through grants, exhibitions, and publications. To date, ISLAA has partnered with New York University, Columbia University, CCS Bard, the New Museum, and Dia Art Foundation on myriad projects.
But since its inception, ISLAA has been nomadic—it hasn’t had its own permanent space until now. To cement its presence in New York, ISLAA acquired 142 Franklin Street in 2021. From there, it hired Overhead Architecture to convert the nearly 9,000-square-foot, two-story space to serve three basic purposes: function as ISLAA’s office for its New York staff, contain ISLAA’s library and archives, and host exhibitions.
“The aim of the project was two-fold. First, the opening of this space coincided with ISLAA’s 10-year anniversary,” said Matthew Ransom, a director at Overhead Architecture. “As such, the space needed to accommodate what is already an established institution, with a sizable collection and all the attendant professionalized functions one would expect of an institution of stature, but it also needed to maintain a degree of programmatic ambiguity to allow for ISLAA to continue to evolve in the years to come,” Ransom told AN.
“ISLAA have referred to themselves as an archipelago, and we see the space as a continuation of that same logic – many different functions coexist in a manner that is carefully choreographed, but the specific form they take is rather loose,” Ransom continued. “Second, there are many galleries moving into the neighborhood and the typology is mostly settled. We wanted to signal that ISLAA is something different. Yes, the gallery is a major aspect of their program – their mission is to support the visibility of Latin American art, after all – but they are also an archive, a publishing house, a research center, and many other things. The aim was to provide a few subtle design choices that had presence, and spoke to the character of the institution, rather than receding into the Level 5 ether.”
Overhead Architecture’s design ensured that the gallery spaces and archival rooms remain air tight from moisture and mold while simultaneously weaving in 20th-century modernist design motifs from Latin America into the exhibition space. Arguably a nod to Lina Bo Bardi’s 1968 exhibition design at São Paulo Museum of Art, much of the art inside ISLAA floats in mid air vis-a-vis floor-to-ceiling brackets. This allows for flexible ensembles and a minimal amount of partition walls divvying up the space, both creating a free-flowing art experience for visitors while allowing natural light to enter interior quadrants set back from the windows.
Referential nods to other design ideas from mid-century Latin America also appear in the basement-level where ISLAA’s library and archives are sited. Here, Overhead Architecture revisited Project Cybersyn, a futuristic command center designed in Chile by Italian industrial designer Gui Bonsiepe and Stafford Beer, a Marxist computer programmer from England, for Salvador Allende’s government. Otherwise known as Allende’s attempt at building a “socialist internet”—Project Cybersyn takes center stage in Eden Medina’s 2014 book Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile published by MIT Press.
Between 1971 and 1973, Project Cybersyn provided Allende’s leftist government with a decision making support system to help manage the national economy. The project had four parts: an economic simulator, software to check factory outputs, a nation-wide network of telex machines connected to one mainframe computer by Stafford Beer, all connected to a futuristic operations room designed by Bonsiepe. It played a critical role in suppressing a revolt led by the far-right “Patria y Libertad” group supported by the CIA in 1972, the first of several attempts by the U.S. to undermine Allende’s presidency before he was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup d’état. Some say Project Cybersyn inspired the set design used in Star Trek. ISLAA’s archival room takes inspiration from the command center’s furniture and tones.
At ISLAA, the space’s white walls and subtle wooden hues make the quotidian sprinkler pipes pop like flaming hot red lipstick. The architects also managed to preserve some of the space’s pre-war fabric like its exposed cast iron columns; seamlessly weaving together present and past. “Much of our design work was focused on non-visible aspects of building,” said Brad Isnard, Overhead Architecture’s project lead.
“There are the practical, constructive considerations we made, from untangling and upgrading century-old building infrastructure, straightening walls, repairing and sealing dried out masonry,” Isnard told AN. “We made an effort to differentiate ISLAA from commercial galleries nearby with a few subtle design choices that speak to the character of the institution itself, rather than receding into an ether of drywall, without becoming overly stylized.”
To date, ISLAA has been gifted or loaned over 500 art pieces by Latin American artists. ISLAA’s founder Ariel Aisiks said the new Tribeca location is a pivotal step forward in cementing the institution in New York’s art scene and for providing permanent space for these ephemera to live in perpetuity. “After more than a decade of work, it is particularly gratifying to have a home for ISLAA where we can expand the narratives and engage the public in dialogue around the vast contributions of Latin American art and artists,” Aisiks said in a press statement. “This new location is a truer reflection of the scale and scope of our relationships and programming.”
According to Isnard, ISLAA’s ultimate design is the product of extensive client outreach. “The immaterial, programmatic recommendations we made were developed from extensive interviews with ISLAA’s staff,” Isnard said. “From those conversations we were able to construct a portrait of the institution as it existed and chart a trajectory for its future needs, which allowed us to narrow the search for real estate and bring together different operations of the institution for the first time ever in a way that exceeded the initial project brief. Overhead was just one partner with ISLAA in a coalition of collaborators—from curators to graphic designers, publishers, researches, and others—who were all mutually committed to realizing this kind of generous new space where it is as comfortable to work as it is to view art, and that we hope will become a fixture in the neighborhood.”
Revisiting The Potosí Principle Archive: Histories of Art and Extraction and The Precious Life of a Liquid Heart is on display through February 10, 2024.